CCL 2012-13 Qualifiers: A Matter of Time for Estelí

Posted on March 3, 2012 8:56 pm

Last year, on the night before my birthday, I switched to Fox Soccer Channel on a friend’s TV in order to catch the start of Real Estelí-Toronto FC. The game itself promised to be enthralling: Milos Kocic had gifted an away goal in the first leg of this CONCACAF Champions League preliminary series, and with a 1-0 victory the Nicaraguans would earn a historic place in the group stage. But I also held a strong curiosity about how the attendance would turn out: as far as I knew, Nicaragua remained a baseball stronghold with little interest in football, outside of the big international tournaments. On top of that, more established Central American clubs had struggled with enticing much of a crowd for CCL prelims; for instance, Costa Rica’s Herediano could only get 1,200 to show up for a game against Cruz Azul. With that in mind, I wondered if anyone other than the players’ mothers would cheer on the home side at the Estadio Independencia.

I could not have been farther off: the admittedly unimpressive venue was packed to the rafters with rabid Esteli supporters, who established their presence early with shouts, chants and horns. They provided the sort of intimidating Central American atmosphere under which North American visitors tend to wilt; but Toronto made the most of their technical superiority on the field to snatch a 1-0 lead. Right before halftime, though, Andy Iro naively left an arm outstretched, an Esteli shot bounced off of it and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. When Manuel Rosas stepped up to take the penalty, the crowd fell into a pregnant hush; as soon as his low shot nestled into the corner at Kocic’s right, the fans unleashed a scream that shocked me with its intensity. The camera turned to the euphoric estelianos in the stands, crying, praying, leaping, punching the air and singing…over a football match.

The night ended badly for Esteli’s CCL hopes, with Toronto defeating them 2-1 (4-2 on aggregate); but if the team underwhelmed, the fans served notice to the entire region (ESPN had picked up the match in Mexico and Central America) of their passion for the game. After seeing that, along with the spectacular ambiance a month later when the national team hosted Panama in Managua, I have become convinced that Nicaragua is following the same sort of transition that has taken place in Panama over the last decade. It is unlikely that football will dominate the sporting landscape in Nicaragua to the extent that it has in neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica; but the growth is clearly there, and the expansion of CONCACAF’s primary tournaments has contributed significantly to this trend.

With the new CCL format, whichever team claims Nicaragua’s berth will be guaranteed twice as many matches as before, with all participants in the continental championship starting off at the group stage. Not only will the Nicaraguan champion get two home games, but they will get to play a high-profile series with either a Mexican or US club, to say nothing of the juicy possibility of landing a Costa Rican opponent. Participation in the next Champions League will undoubtedly constitute the greatest chapter in the history of whichever Nicaraguan club makes it. The only problem for everyone not named Real Estelí, however, is that the defending league champions have no intention of sharing the honor.

El Tren del Norte did not earn a CCL berth with its most recent domestic title; but just like the other Apertura champions in Central America, Esteli have the opportunity to wrap up their country’s highest spot before the Clausura playoffs even begin, thanks to the tiebreaker established by CONCACAF in 2008. If Esteli fail to defend their title in the current tournament, then “aggregate points over both seasons” will be used to determine which champion advances to the continental stage; and since the Nicaraguan Football Federation (FENIFUT) only takes the regular season of the Apertura and Clausura tournaments into account (unlike in Costa Rica, where playoff results are added in), Esteli simply need to amass an unassailable lead in order to qualify for the next CCL.

As of last Wednesday, Esteli enjoy a 16-point lead at the top of the 2011-12 cumulative table, with 52 points to 36 for second-place rivals Walter Ferreti. With only seven games left in the Clausura regular season, Ferreti can reach a maximum of 57 points, leaving Esteli in need of just two more wins; but there is a scenario in which they can join our list of CCL qualifiers this weekend. The top four teams in the cumulative table (Real Esteli, Walter Ferreti, Diriangen and Managua) will all play road games tomorrow (Sunday, March 4), and Esteli will qualify outright if:

- Walter Ferreti lose at Real Madriz (12:00 p.m., all times EST) AND
- Real Esteli win at Deportivo Ocotal (4:00 p.m.) AND
- Managua FC lose or tie at Chinandega (4:00 p.m.)

I have not been able to find any online stream of Nicaraguan league matches, but audio coverage will be provided on FutbolNica Radio. Real Madriz and Deportivo Ocotal are both waist-deep in the relegation battle, so both Ferreti and Esteli will be hard-pressed to earn results on this matchday; but if everything falls in their favor, Nicaragua’s finest will seal their third Champions League appearance.

Then again, if results do not go their way, Esteli are still likely to qualify in short order, given the gaping chasm between them and everyone else.

CCL 2012-13 Qualifiers

1. Seattle Sounders [USA2]
2. LA Galaxy [USA1]
3. Real Salt Lake [USA4]
4. Houston Dynamo [USA3]
5. Chorrillo FC [PAN1 or PAN2]
6. Santos Laguna [MEX2 or MEX3]
7. Tigres UANL [MEX1]
8. Olimpia [HON1 or HON2]
9. Isidro Metapán [SLV1 or SLV2]
10. Municipal [GUA1 or GUA2]
11. LD Alajuelense [CRC1 or CRC2]
12. Real Estelí [NCA]

A bonus for those interested in Central American football: the Costa Rican television network Teletica has finally gotten around to providing an official online stream, so be sure to bookmark it.

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